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India's parliament has fewer Muslims as strength of Modi's party grows

MALAPPURAM, India — (AP) — Preventing Muslim migrants from gaining citizenship. Revoking the semi-autonomy of the country's only Muslim-majority region. Building a Hindu temple where a violent mob razed a mosque.

These were political triumphs for Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the past decade, burnishing his reputation as a leader who prioritizes the interests of India's Hindu majority. For India's 200 million Muslims, they highlight their waning political power in the world's largest democracy.

Tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India are not new, but they have gotten worse under Modi, whose ruling Bharatiya Janata Party touts a Hindu-nationalist ideology. And with Modi seemingly on the cusp of a third five-year term, the outlook for Muslim politicians — and citizens — is bleak. This year's vote will be decided in June.

It's not just that Modi has ramped up anti-Muslim rhetoric in campaign speeches. Ever since the BJP began its rise as a political force in the mid-1980s, the proportion of Muslim lawmakers in parliament and state legislatures has shrunk.

Muslim representation has fallen in the ruling BJP, and in opposition parties, too.

When Modi assumed power in 2014, the outgoing parliament had 30 Muslim lawmakers — and just one was a member of the BJP. Muslims now hold 25 out of 543 seats, and none belong to the BJP.

India has gone from being a country where Muslims were largely marginalized to one where they are “actively excluded,” said Ali Khan Mahmudabad, a political scientist and historian at New Delhi’s Ashoka University.

“Without representation, you are unable to ask the state for resources and articulate the kind of needs the community has in order to progress, whether its education, jobs, health or basic infrastructure,” Mahmudabad said.

In the mid-1980s, Muslims accounted for 11% of India's population, and had 9% of seats in parliament; today they are 14% of the population and have less than 5% of seats in parliament.

Nine out of 10 members in parliament are Hindus, who make up 80 percent of India’s population of 1.4 billion.

The political representation of Muslims at the state level is only slightly better. India has more than 4,000 lawmakers in state legislatures across 28 states and Muslim lawmakers hold roughly 6% of these seats.

A government report in 2006 found Muslims lagged Hindus, Christians and people from India's lower castes in literacy, income and access to education. They have made some gains since then but are still at a significant disadvantage, according to multiple independent studies.

Under Modi's decade in power, the BJP has enacted or proposed various laws that Muslim leaders consider discriminatory.

— Some states ruled by the BJP passed laws restricting interfaith marriage as a way to address what they claim is the threat posed by Hindu women marrying Muslim men and then converting.

— One state formerly ruled by the BJP banned girls from wearing hijabs in school. (The law was reversed after the BJP lost political control.)

— The BJP is advocating a common legal code that would affect some religious practices, by changing some laws in India's constitution that deal with matters ranging from marriage to divorce and inheritance.

Violence against Muslims is commonplace, and Modi has said little to deter it. Muslims have been lynched by Hindu mobs over allegations of eating beef or smuggling cows, an animal considered holy to Hindus. Their homes and businesses have been bulldozed, and their places of worship set on fire.

At recent campaign rallies, Modi has said Muslims are “infiltrators” and that they “have too many children.” Without evidence, he has accused the BJP's main rival, the Congress party, of planning to redistribute the wealth of Hindus to Muslims.

Many Muslims believe Modi is stoking divisions as a campaign strategy.

“They're keeping the Hindu-Muslim issue hot... so they remain enemies,” said Mehmood Bhai Khatri, a 64-year-old Muslim voter from Modi's home state of Gujarat, a BJP stronghold.

“But who will speak up? If they do, they may be picked up (by police) or a bulldozer will be sent to their homes," said Khatri. "So out of fear, nobody speaks up.”

Not one of India's 28 states has a Muslim as chief minister; the BJP and its allies have chief ministers in 19 states.

In Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous state and where roughly 16% of residents are Muslim, just 7% of state lawmakers are Muslim.

As the BJP becomes ever more powerful, India's opposition parties have become increasingly reluctant to nominate Muslim candidates for fear of alienating Hindu voters, experts say.

While Hindus overwhelmingly rally around the BJP, Muslims have struggled to form a cohesive political agenda, in part because of how diverse their community is across sects, ethnicity, language, customs, and culture.

“There is no way to unite this very heterogeneous group of people, without making Islam the common denominator,” said Mahmudabad, the political scientist.

But when political parties don't field enough Muslims, issues important to them — from minority rights to hate speech — hardly ever get debated in the parliament, said Muhammad Saad, a cab driver in New Delhi who is Muslim.

“If there are no Muslims in the parliament, who will raise the voice for us?” Saad questioned.

Analysts say the BJP has made some outreach efforts to Muslims, such as seeking their help as volunteers and at the polls. But the party fielded just 13 Muslim candidates combined in the 2014 and 2019 elections, and none were elected.

The BJP denies discriminating against Muslim people.

The party "permits accommodation of all kinds of people, not just the Hindus,” said M Abdul Salam, the only Muslim out of some 430 BJP candidates running for parliament this year. If he wins, he will become the first Muslim member of the BJP since 2014 in India’s lower house of the parliament.

Salam, who is from the Muslim-majority southern city of Malappuram, said Muslim politicians from other parties could gain power by joining the BJP’s alliance in parliament.

But Muslims from other parties are struggling simply to stay in office.

S T Hasan, a Muslim member of parliament from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, was not chosen by the Samajwadi Party to seek reelection. He was replaced by a Hindu politician, a decision he believes was made to appeal to Hindu voters, who are the majority in the region he represents.

Hasan said political parties, especially those that consider themselves secular, need to make more room for minority candidates.

“Fair representation of every community is good for a democracy," he said. “But what we are seeing is that one community is being gradually pushed to the corner.”

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Pathi reported from New Delhi and Ahmedabad.

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Follow AP's Asia-Pacific coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/asia-pacific

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